Q/A with Jim Murray bio author: Columnist was the ‘Last King’

Ted Geltner has a new biography about Jim Murray. I find the title intriguing: Last King of the Sports Page.

Indeed, is it possible we will never see another columnist who had the impact of Jim Murray?

Even though he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Murray’s brilliant prose was able to reach the entire country, thanks to syndication. A young aspiring journalist named Bob Ryan, growing up in New Jersey, recalled being influenced by Murray.

Now with the Internet, there are so many voices, and most of them are loud. The clatter seems to obscure the writer and writing, as everything is about the message.

Geltner, a journalism professor at Valdosta State, probably is right. Murray is the Last King. With access to his files, he wrote a fascinating portrait of the top sports columnist of his generation. A must-read if you are a student of this profession.

Here’s my Q/A with Geltner:

How did this project come about?

While I was in graduate school at the University of Florida, I wrote about the history of Sports Illustrated. I was already a big Jim Murray fan, but I had no idea he was involved in the creation of SI. Through that project, I was introduced to Jim’s widow, Linda. She runs the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation and travels around the country speaking to collegiate sports journalists. She told me that Jim’s archives were located in her garage in La Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs, and that she was the only person who had been through his papers. She invited me to take a look, and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

What sources did you use for the book; how did Murray’s own autobiography play in writing the book?

Well, that garage turned out to be a treasure trove of Jim Murray, sports and journalism history. There were letters from presidents, actors, athletes, journalists, from John Wayne to Groucho Marx to Richard Nixon to Arnold Palmer to Muhammad Ali. Jim was a pack rat, so I found amazing artifacts: notes on his first stories when he was cub reporter in Connecticut, ticket stubs from the Academy Awards in the ’40s, scorecards from championship fights, reports to his editors at Time, etc. It was a ton of fun to dig through it all. In addition, I interviewed many former colleagues, friends, relatives and sports personalities. Murray was worshipped throughout his profession, so people were always excited to talk about him.

His autobiography was a tremendous resource. Murray hated writing about himself – he never felt there was anything interesting about him. So, only 1/3 of the book is about his life. The rest is his take on the people he’d covered in his career. The personal portion of the book provided a nice roadmap to his life story.

You likely read hundreds, if not thousands of Murray columns, doing the research. When you read that many columns in a row, what struck out you about Murray’s style?

Jim wrote over 10,000 columns, starting in 1961. At first, I set out to read them all. I got about halfway through 1962 before I realized it would have taken me until about 2025 to plow through the entire lot. But I did read hundreds and it was a great ride through sports history. I knew about Murray’s humor, but I was struck by his incredible knowledge of history, and his ability to relate it to sports. He had a great respect for the intelligence of his readers, and he took his column to places well beyond the world of sports.

What were the memorable columns that stood out? Did you have a favorite?

There are so many brilliant, hilarious columns and perfect lines in Murray’s work. But because of the nature of my project, the most memorable to me were the personal columns, which were rare. Almost everybody I talked to about Murray directed me to two columns in particular. The first was the one he wrote when he lost his eye (“You might say Old Blue Eye is back.”) The column wistfully recounts all the amazing things he’d seen it his lifetime. The second is the one he wrote when his first wife, Gerry, died, a perfect tribute that had the entire city of Los Angeles weeping when it was published. My personal favorite might be his tribute to his Uncle Ed, a hustler and card shark who was like a surrogate father to Murray during his childhood. It includes many of Uncle Ed’s (and Murray’s) rules of life: “Never bet on a dead horse or a live woman. Never take money from an amateur, unless he insists.”

On the personal side, was he a happy man? His sons had problems and you write he regrets he didn’t spend more time with them.

That was probably Jim’s one great failing – that he let his pursuit of fame and success get in the way of his relationship with his children. He spent a lot of time on the road and was so dedicated to his work that he lost touch with his kids. But I would say that overall he enjoyed his life immensely. It was a life of tremendous peaks and valleys – a really rough childhood and great personal loss later in life, set against incredible professional accomplishment and lasting friendships. And because of his childhood of poverty and disease, he was always grateful for what he achieved later in life.

Was there anything that surprised you in learning about Murray?

The most surprising element to me was the scope of his career prior to joining the LA Times. He worked 20 years as a journalist before he wrote his first sports column. He covered famous Los Angeles crime stories like the Black Dahlia murder, broke the story of Nixon’s Checkers Speech for Time, found Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe before they were stars. He somehow always managed to be at the right place at the right time.

Why did you dub him the Last King? Have we seen the last of somebody like Jim Murray?

I think we may have seen the last of journalists who reach Jim’s level of notoriety through writing – definitely the last to do so through newspapers. Jim grew up in the era of Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner, guys who became national figures by writing newspaper columns. In his lifetime, he saw broadcasters like Howard Cosell and Jim McKay become the most recognizable faces in sports media. Today, many sportswriters achieve widespread fame, but only after they move to television. Murray made his name solely based on what he wrote, and that’s what I think makes him the last of his kind.

Was he a columnist for his time? Could he have succeeded in the Internet age?

I think the form that Murray mastered, the 800-word column, is something that doesn’t really fit too well in the new forms of media. It’s a dying art. And he wasn’t somebody who liked to adapt to new technology. He was happy with his typewriter, and actually preferred pencil and paper. But some of his best, and funniest, columns were a succession of one-liners, all perfect for the age of Twitter. I’ve been digging up and tweeting some of his best lines, and many fit nicely into the 140-character limit. The other day I came across: “If big guys were as mean as little guys, there wouldn’t be any little guys.” He had the knack for saying a lot with just a few words.

Anything else?

Something that hit home for me while I was working on the book was that beyond all the jokes and the Hollywood friends and the fame, Murray really thought of himself as a journalist first, and always tried to be true to the principles of good journalism. Those principles – accuracy, storytelling, objectivity, fairness – were extremely important to him, I think, and that went a long way toward earning him such a high level of respect throughout the profession.

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